It's a question that has business, industry, educationalists and politicians scratching their heads: why isn't the UK producing more maths, science and engineering graduates? Not enough students are studying these key disciplines at university, A-level and GCSE, with young people consistently being turned off by poor teaching, dull classrooms and the common misconception that these are difficult subjects leading to "geeky" professions.
Yet if you get it right in the classroom these can be some of the most stimulating subjects to study. Salford City College, which combines Eccles College, Pendleton Sixth Form and Salford College, knows this all too well. The college runs a Science Extravaganza Day for local pupils: last year the school children spent the day blowing things up after the college brought in a local firm that specialises in rocket propulsion.
"We studied rocket design and then they got to build a rocket and launch it using compressed gas," says Russell Potepa, head of the Beacon status science and maths department. "It was quite a revelation for them."
The department makes sure its open evenings are a fun affair to try and entice would-be students away from softer, sexier subjects.
"We try to make open evenings as interactive as possible, with dissections to gross them out and paddling pools full of custard to demonstrate the properties of materials. It's about getting them interested, so they run and get their mates who are all queuing up for ever-popular psychology and say, 'Come and look at what's happening in biology'," explains Potepa, who believes it's the see-science-in-action classes that make all the difference when it comes to recruiting students and, more importantly, retaining them.
Practical experimentation is sadly in decline in many classrooms, however. "Increasingly, schools aren't doing practicals because you don't need to do them to get the results," says Potepa. "Yet it's the practicals that make the difference."
There are a number of reasons for this: teachers find it difficult to do practicals safely when their attention is diverted by behavioural issues in the classroom; there are cost considerations; and many non-specialist chemistry or physics teachers lack the confidence to do practical experiments.
In addition to practical work in the labs, Salford City College puts an emphasis on learning outside the classroom. This isn't subject-specific: it's about raising students' aspirations. "Up here, our students can go to three universities without leaving home, which is safe and familiar for them," says Potepa, who pushes students to attend residential trips in London, Oxford and Cambridge. "But we want to widen their horizons and make them feel they're worthy of attending the Russell Group Universities."
The department runs a PreMed group for those students interested in studying veterinary science or medicine. "We work quite closely with consultants from the local hospital and they support the students with their applications, make sure they have fantastic references and personal statements and expose them to as many professions within the health service as possible so they have a range of options," says Potepa, adding that this concept is now being expanded to include a pre-engineering group.
In maths, where enrolment has expanded significantly over the last few years, the department is scoring some very impressive results. The maths teacher uses discovery learning techniques – where students are set an equation to solve in groups – and the results speak for themselves, with students almost top of the country's league tables. "They have to identify the knowledge they need to work it out, and then ask questions of each other and work together to find the answer," says Potepa. "Rather than the teacher doing the whole class thing, the students take ownership of the problem and that gives them confidence when it comes to exams."
There is also a lunchtime enrichment group in maths, which stretches the pupils and takes them off-syllabus. "The students get excited about it," says Potepa. "I've been in the classroom after they've had one of these sessions and they are babbling about what they've done and that enthusiasm spreads to the rest of the class."
Indeed, students describe these lessons as exciting, something that sadly too few graduates of the school system tend to attribute to maths and science.
"One of the best things about my science lessons is that they're never boring," says Pendleton College student Raihazah Malek, who is studying maths, biology, chemistry, physics and further maths and hopes to study science at university. "There's always something interesting to learn and the fact that my teachers love their subject makes being in their lessons a whole lot more fun."
Make maths fun and exciting? It can be done.